Sometimes a movie stays with me, in spite of not having made a deep dent in my consciousness at the time I saw it. I saw this movie “Ghosts” at the Seattle International Film Festival in 2007, and I wrote a rather dismissive post here about it (see below). I didn’t expect that movie to stay with me, but it has. The movie recreates the experiences of a young Chinese woman whose husband has left her and who must support herself and her young son. There simply are no jobs where she lives. She decides to take a desperate risk: to pay a human trafficker to get her into England, where she can earn money to send home. She leaves her son with her mother and puts herself into the hands of total strangers. For six long months, she is smuggled from one place to another, shut up in containers in the cargo holds, stuffed into the back of trucks, never knowing where she is, where she is going, when she will next be able to eat or drink. The passage of time blurs, locations are vague, the people handling her come and go.
Eventually she finds herself one day in the back of a van driving into an anonymous suburban neighborhood. She’s taken into a house. It looks like an ordinary house, but inside it is empty except that every square foot of floor space is occupied by a bed roll. This is where she will sleep when she is not working. The house is crammed with workers like herself. Some work day shifts, others work nights, so that all the bed rolls are always full.
She begins her new life now, working very long days, seven days a week at menial jobs. Each day the boss drives them somewhere, they are told what to do and are picked up when their shift ends. These are shit jobs, the ones nobody wants to do. For example, for a week or so she works in a hospital doing laundry. She is invisible to others, silent, eyes down, with a mop and bucket, pushing a trolley heaped with filthy laundry down a dim underground corridor. The boss knows exactly how long she can work there under the radar and pulls her before anyone discovers she’s illegal.
She works exhausting hours and never has any contact with the outside world. She is never left alone and has no freedom. She speaks no English, cannot read signs, or even ask anyone for help. If she runs away, the boss’s friends in China will come down hard on her mother and son, so she must toe the line. The boss discourages them from chatting at the house, so she doesn’t even really know the other people there. Her only link with the outside world is her cellphone. Once in a while she can call home and talk to her mother and her son.
She will never be able to repay the debt, because she is paying back the money she owes for getting her into England, plus for her room and board and for finding jobs for her. Everything she earns goes against that ever-increasing debt. So she is essentially unregulated, invisible slave labor.
One day the boss loads them up in the van and drives out onto a wide flat beach. They “happen to run into” a local who will pay cash for all the cockles they can dig up. So they drive out onto the sand and start digging. The hours go by, and soon the sun is sinking in the sky. They keep digging. Finally the water is starting to come up around their ankles and they get in the van to go back, but then realize they have no idea which way to go. In all directions, miles of empty sand beaches stretch out as far as the eye can see. Meanwhile it’s getting dark, the water is rising quickly, and their van is soon swamped. The woman ends up standing on top of the van with the others in utter darkness, trying to call her mother so she can hear her son’s voice one last time, as waves crash around the van. Thankfully, someone got through to some emergency services and they were found and saved, but not before 23 people drowned. The young woman survived. This happened in Morecambe Bay in Lancashire on Feb. 5, 2004.
Since seeing this film in 2007, I’d had the idea this happened in East Anglia, probably because so much land is reclaimed from the sea there. But lately I’ve been reading about West Yorkshire and Lancashire and ran across a reference to Morecambe Bay, and suddenly realized this had to be the location from that movie. Indeed, it was.
Morecambe Bay lies on Britain’s west coast, halfway up the side. It is actually an estuary, the mouth of five major rivers and their peninsulas along with seven islands. It is the largest expanse of intertidal mudflats and sand in the UK, covering 120 square miles. At low tide, you can walk between the islands and far out onto the sands. But the bay is notorious for its quicksand and fast-moving tides. It is said that the tide comes in "as fast as a horse can run." For centuries, there have been royally appointed local guides called “Queen's Guide to the Sands” to take people across safely. The Chinese boss probably did not know this.
When I saw this film, I had a hard time understanding how these people could become so lost out on the sands. Even if you got turned around and couldn’t see dry land, wouldn’t the sky or the sea tell you which way to go? Couldn’t you follow your car tracks?
I suppose it comes from growing up in a land-locked state, but I’d always imagined the tide coming in like you see in movies. Nice big waves coming from one direction, in toward land – in other words, with a discernable direction. But I know now that in mudflats, the water just seeps in around you. You look down and your feet are wet. And with 120 miles of sand, there's plenty of ways to get turned around and lose your bearings.
And if the sky is heavily overcast, there is no way to know where the sun is, to find west or east. And if you had no comprehension of where you were in relation to dry land, it wouldn’t do you any good anyhow.
I’ve been caught by surprise by the tides. Once I was on an island with a guy who was in the Merchant Marine for years and he got caught by surprise by the tide. His boat was left high and dry and far from the water for hours. We just had to wait for the tide to turn. I’ve looked down from atop Mont St. Michel and seen the tides rushing in across the acres of flat sands. I delayed walking out to St. Michael’s Mount to grab a quick bite once only to find it cut off 10 minutes later. You know the old saying: Time and tide wait for no man.
The title of the film is problematic; many people probably expect a paranormal thriller. But I understand why the filmmaker chose it. Ghosts are beings who live among us but are invisible. Like two parallel universes, two different realities living layered together but separate and invisible.
The overall tone of the film reflects that very well. The action may seem mundane, but the sense of disconnectedness is powerful and memorable. The Chinese woman is helpless, powerless, lost, like being in suspended animation. Time loses all meaning except for your work shift. There is no context, no cushioning reality outside your own. Psychologically, the woman was utterly alone.
“Ghosts” is a low-budget film with amateur actors, nearly all the dialogue ad-libbed – there is nothing particularly memorable about the film as such. And yet it comes back to me when I see video of desperate Syrians carrying only a water bottle, telling about loved ones lost in the water in the dark. I remember that tiny Chinese woman, how alone she was, how powerless, how disconnected. Europe is full of people like her, and probably so is the US. When you take them as a group, you see the bigger political picture, the logistics, the impossible problems. But when you take them as individuals, you see a human being who needs help. In that regard, I have to say, eight years after seeing this film, “Ghosts” stays with me.
Here is my original post from June 5, 2007
This film was a re-enactment of a true story about the plight of illegal immigrants in England. Again, we begin with a climactic incident, then jump back in time to follow the events that led up to that incident. (Yawn.)
The story concerns a young mother in China, whose husband left her so she and her baby son live with her family. They are poor and work hard, but can't get ahead. Someone tells her she can make a lot of money in England, so the family borrows money to get her smuggled into the UK illegally. It takes six months to get her there. When she arrives, she is put to work doing grunt work, living in a house with 10 or 12 other illegal Chinese guys. They are all led by a boss guy, who knows how to work the system to get jobs for these people "under the table." They encounter nasty racist people but also nice people too. Between the debt at home to the moneylenders and the money she owes the boss man for room and board and connections, her situation is hopeless. The film's climax comes when they are all nearly drowned while out collecting cockles on a deserted beach. They don't keep track of the tide and then get disoriented. This actually happened, and 23 people drowned.
This young woman didn't drown, however, and got some help as a result. She was able to fly back to China, where she happily greeted her son and mother and sister, no doubt thinking that if she can't find her heart's desire in her own back yard, maybe she never really lost it to begin with.
There were about 15 people at this showing, which I suppose is a reflection of the lack of interest and sympathy in our country right now about illegal immigrants. The closing frames told us that X number of illegals in the UK are burdened by X zillion pounds of debt and that the British government continues to refuse to do anything to help them. While I cringe at the demonization of illegals in our country now, I don't feel it's a government's responsibility to pay their debts, unlike the makers of this film.
Personally, after seeing the movies about Uganda and Darfur, the plight of these people didn't seem so awful. But it's not fair to compare so I won't dwell on that. Not long ago I wrote about that series of "Prime Suspect" that highlights the experience of eastern Europeans trying to find a better life in England. Also it brought to mind the episodes of "The Wire" about the dead girls in the can. There are a lot of very unhappy, poor people out there who'd give a lot to have the problems we have. I can't condemn them for taking a desperate gamble.
As to the film itself, it's a pretty standard approach. I do think I will remember the image of these desperate people standing on top of the roof of their van in the darkness with wild waves crashing in on them, up to their ankles, and the young girl calling her mother in China on her cellphone to say goodbye to her baby. What a jarring image.